For about a year and a half I worked for Don Foster MP who today announced that he would not be standing for re-election in 2015. Here a few reflections on what it was like working for him.
Don was first elected to the Bath seat in 1992 when he beat the then-chairman of the Conservative party Chris Patten. He was then re-elected with sizeable majorities on four separate occasions serving Bath over 5 parliamentary terms.
I am happy to debate the legacy of his 18 years in opposition and the last three years in government. For now though I wanted to write a little on what it was like working for Don as I think this hits at the heart of why so many consider him to be a fine MP.
The first thing that jumps to mind is his formidable work ethic. 80 hour working weeks became a norm for him spending his weekends back from Westminster attending both public and local Liberal Democrat events in the constituency.
I remember once slumping into the local leisure centre at 7:30 in the morning to go for a swim before work. On the way in I bumped into Don bouncing out of the gym with a huge smile on his face cracking some joke about having a running start to the day.
And this was perhaps the second thing that springs to mind about working with Don – his sense of humour was superb…even in the face of cock ups from his staff.
In the lead up to Christmas 2011, the local press failed to spot a spoof press release about Don’s renowned ukulele playing. The press release intended to invite them to Christmas drinks but in jest invited the press to Don’s launch party for his bid to become Christmas number one. Failing to spot that this story was a spoof it spread rapidly all over Europe with articles appearing in major national and international media – ‘Liberal Democrat MP in Christmas number one bid’. This story was then replaced with the ‘Liberal Democrat MP forced to deny he’s releasing Christmas single’ stories.
A bit of a cock-up.
It would have been understandable for an MP to be pissed off in such a situation. Instead Don took it all in his stride. That year, all his staff received big Christmas presents wrapped up – we all got our very own ukuleles.
To clarify, I am not saying he couldn’t be a grumpy git, he of course could be. But more that considering how hard he worked and the nature of his work he was impressively good natured about it all.
This good humour gave him a foundation on which to interact with people on a very personal level. Watching him interact with a room full of strangers – all of whom would normally know him – was impressive. He just had a way with people that didn’t stem from that stereotype that politicians have of ‘smoothing’ people, but from a genuine interest in people.
I remember sitting with Don just before he was due to go live on BBC Radio 4’s World at One. I was sat holding, and inexplicable reading to myself, a sheet of paper about key lines for the interview. Just before going on air he turned to me and started asking, not about the upcoming interview on national radio, but about a constituent whose case we working on at that time.
Casework for Don, it felt to me, wasn’t just an obligation or even an election strategy like it is for some MPs, but a reflection of his commitment to his constituents and actually caring about what happened to them.
This trait – of giving a shit about people – reflected in the way he showed interest in his staff. I left working for Don to work as a human-rights monitor in the West Bank. When I returned I had been back in London less than a week when he invited me in to have a chat about what my plans were for my next employment. He was eager to help and to ensure that working for him was a building block for me to go onto whatever I wanted to do next.
Don’s politics differ to my own but after working for him for 18 months I can say with certainty that he is a nice guy, an exceptional MP and that the constituents of Bath are lucky to have had him at their service for the last 21 years.
Today Don has been quick to remind everyone that he still has another year and half left to go until he steps down in 2015 and I don’t for a second think he is going to take his foot off the peddle in that time.
I wonder though when that time comes whether he will remember how to put his feet up or whether he will find something new to throw himself into?